#903 Contemplating Montblanc
by Logan Macnair
Surrey: Now or Never Publishing, 2020
$19.95 / 9781988098975
Reviewed by Eryn Holbrook
“Do you know who I am?” asks an unidentified inquirer in the opening lines of Panegyric, the first novel by BC-based writer, Logan Macnair. The question, we soon learn, is addressed to the book’s narrator, Larry Mann: a struggling writer who has been hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of powerful businessman-turned-politician, Maxime Montblanc. Larry has been invited to spend the summer at Montblanc’s mansion in Oshawa, Ontario, allowing him direct access to his subject. Montblanc is an enigmatic figure. Expected to become the next Prime Minister of Canada, he hopes this memoir will cast him in a positive light and will get him the votes he needs. As Montblanc reveals the details of his bizarre and sordid past, however, Larry begins to wonder what he is expected to do with this material, most of which is not fit to print. Sensing Larry’s discomfort and hesitation, Montblanc assures his secret biographer that he will be well compensated for his efforts. With few other prospects on the horizon, Larry throws himself into the job, dreaming of a future where he can achieve wealth and fame — or, at least, move out of his depressing, run-down Vancouver apartment.
A stranger in an unfamiliar town, Larry confines himself to an isolated suite in Montblanc’s mansion. His assignment begins to feel more like a prison sentence than an opportunity for career advancement. The growing tension between the powerful, volatile Montblanc and his pusillanimous biographer becomes the central focus of the narrative. While both men can trace their humble origins to small town BC, Maxime Montblanc’s life is punctuated by a series of triumphs — social, political, and sexual. Larry, on the other hand, can never seem to catch a break. Montblanc is politically astute, loquacious, and adored by the public. Larry, who suffers from a debilitating speech impediment, is sullen and misanthropic. He laments his inability to find love or success in a world that favours the skills of the orator. From Larry’s perspective, someone like Montblanc gets what he wants simply because he can say what needs to be said. And yet, while Montblanc can easily charm an audience with his eloquent speech, he is hopeless when it comes to putting his thoughts down on paper. This is why he needs a gifted writer like Larry Mann. And Larry needs someone like Montblanc to bring his words to life. Or, at least, that’s what he’s been led to believe.
On its surface, Panegyric is a study of the relationship between power and rhetoric. As the novel progresses, however, it becomes clear that Macnair has no intention of presenting his reader with a straightforward, formulaic narrative. The memoir Larry Mann produces will find success if it can appeal to a popular audience. Panegyric strives to be the opposite. For example, the narrator brazenly rejects Orwell’s advice to “avoid using long words when there [is] a short one that might suitably replace it.” He acknowledges that his previous work was criticized for not adhering to the basic rules of plot, structure, and character development. With his first novel, Macnair seems to be exploring a dangerous idea — what if one were to write a novel that broke all the rules? Why stick to one style (or perspective, or genre) when you can use them all? Flip through the pages, pick a chapter at random and you may find yourself reading an intimate first-person confessional, a third-person flashback, an epistolary address, a fiery polemic, an entry from a dream journal, a screenplay, a prison diary… or a religious invocation to four ancient fertility Goddesses and Leonard Cohen. The result is challenging, unsettling, and, at times, completely incoherent. Panegyric is also the kind of book that is overtly aware of both its reader and itself: “Nothing ever happens in this book,” Larry/Macnair writes at one point. “Why are you still here?”
Some of Macnair’s best writing comes in the form of short, cinematic scenes that are detached from the central. With Montblanc, he demonstrates a remarkable ability to fill pages upon pages with empty sophistry: Montblanc’s lines are beautifully-crafted but completely meaningless. Brief, fast-paced chapters that advance the main plotline are suddenly interrupted by a shift in focus, subject, or voice — only to be picked up again in the following chapters, as if nothing happened. Let’s just say that Panegyric isn’t for everybody. It’s unconventional and ambitious. It pushes you away with its lack of a unified structure, and drags you back in with its literary polish. Approach with caution. Expect to be entertained.
Eryn Holbrook is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in the Graduate Liberal Students program at Simon Fraser University where she also works as an IT manager. A musician and songwriter, Eryn has been a member of Vancouver’s independent music scene since the 1990s. She lives in East Vancouver with her partner, two sons, and a pair of backyard chickens named Bowie and Ozzy. In June 2020, she contributed an essay to The Ormsby Review, The Will to Pleasure: Hedonism, Ethics, and Aesthetics from the Ancient World to the Present Age.
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